Archive for the ‘Obama’ Tag

A Revival of Eloquence

A key element of the Obama presidential bid was his rhetorical skills. Beyond question, he has been the most eloquent speaker on the national stage since Martin Luther King, Jr. Not even Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, or Billy Graham had the impact on the general public that the new president has had.

The truth is, Obama has raised the bar for those who would lead the American people. For too long we have settled for leaders with mediocre speaking ability. In fact, it may be that we have in this one election gone from the least able speaker to the most able speaker, just as we have gone from the most conservative to the most liberal. If Obama governs as well as he speaks he will have altered the course of public speech in America.

Just like Lincoln.

The 16th President of the United States pushed aside the standard style of his day: flowery, full of allusions and quotations, pompous and very long. Lincoln was plain, simple, brief, and artfully worded. Garry Wills wrote a book about the transformation of rhetoric by Abraham Lincoln.

We could wish the same for Obama. While critics decried his style as “nothing but rhetoric” and “style without substance” the American people were moved by Obama’s soaring eloquence and learned again that the ability to inspire people is the chief element of a leader.

Obama’s skill as an orator surely is rooted in natural ability, disciplined intelligence, and—let’s be honest—the influence of preaching. True, Obama had to adjust his ties with his long-time pastor, but not before the flamboyant Chicago minister embodied for the future President what strong, simple, soaring language can do to mobilize a people.

Obama may have intentionally mimicked Lincoln in another way: including in his emerging circle of advisors people who were once his staunch critics. The book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln published in 2005 by Doris Kerns Goodwin describes this presidential strategy. It remains to be seen whether Obama can implement it as successful as did Lincoln. That has to do, again, with the ability to govern.

But one thing is for sure: Obama has reinvigorated public speech. People are glad; they voted for him. University professors of rhetoric and high school speech coaches will both be thrilled; perhaps the President’s success will bring into this ancient discipline a new generation of talented young people.

But I represent another legion of people who must take note and give thanks: those of us who mentor and teach young preachers. A seminary president said to me as we lunched together on Election Day: “This is good news for preaching.” I think he is right.

The irony is this: the very person critics once accused of being Muslim, who at a critical time in his march on Washington found it necessary to disavow the rhetoric of his own pastor may turn out to be one of the most influential persons in shaping gospel preachers of the 21st century.

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Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town

Not two weeks ago a father took his eight year old son to a gun show in Westfield Massachusetts. While there and with the boy’s father giving his approval a vendor handed to the boy a fully–loaded Uzi submachine gun. The boy wanted to test fire the weapon. The Uzi was too much for the little boy to handle; he lost control of the weapon while it was firing and shot himself in the head. He died.

Of course, we were all grieved by this tragic accident but am I the only one who was astounded at the facts of this case: that an eight year old boy can attend a gun show, that the weapons at gun shows are loaded, that little boys are permitted to fire weapons, and that it is legal for a gun dealer to hand a loaded Uzi to an eight year old boy?

Good God! I am more than astounded. I have no word strong enough to express my shock and outrage. Yet I read not a single editorial, column, or letter-to-the-editor in protest of this death.

Then there was the episode in Texas. A man saw two men crawling out the windows of a neighbor’s house. He called authorities and told the dispatcher he was going to kill the men; which he proceeded to do, shooting both of them in the back. A local grand jury refused to indict him for any crime.

I imagine a similar scenario on own street in Lexington. What would I do if I saw two men crawling out of the window of the house next door? Certainly I would lock my doors and call the police. But when does burglary, even if I could assume that is what was happening—after all, my own boys have climbed in and out of my house on numerous occasions—justify capital punishment? A burglar found guilty might get five to ten years—but not death.

So how is that people can grab a shotgun and gun people down?

According to the National Education Association, between 1979 and 2001 gunfire killed 90,000 children and teens in America. In one year more children and teens died from gunfire than from cancer, pneumonia, influenza, Asthma, and HIV/AIDS combined. The rate of firearm deaths among kids under age 15 is almost 12 times higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized countries combined.

Yet during the past decade the resistance to the gun culture in America has been muted; maybe suppressed is a better word. I am one citizen that supports stronger regulations on the gun industry. Like the warning of the mother to her young adult son in the Johnny Cash song, “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town.”

The recent election may give us cause for hope. The cowboy Bush is being replaced by the urban Obama. On the range, guns are used to shoot targets and vermin, mostly; but in the cities, these weapons kill people. This difference in culture will bring a new attitude toward guns into the governing class. I can only hope.

A Word Fitly Spoken

November 4, 2008 will be remembered as a turning point in American history: like Pearl Harbour, the moon landing, or 9/11.

On that day I arrived early at the polling place, waited in line, and cast my ballot. Then I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend worship at Asbury Seminary followed by lunch with their president, Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas, a seasoned Methodist minister old enough to be my father. We sat in a small diner in Nicholasville, Kentucky and talked about the campaign for the presidency. On many things we agreed but especially this: Barack Obama has dramatized anew the significance and success of public speech.

Rhetoric is often denigrated as empty and useless; give us policy, we say to the candidate; be practical, we plead with the preacher. But when a holy and hospitable vision is carried along by a simple and soaring eloquence, what comes forth is a transformational power that organization, ideology, or effort can not match.

Part of it is technique: cadence, language, inflection, tone, posture, countenance. “A word fitly spoken,” the Bible asserts, “is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”—rare, to be treasured, and able to captivate the imagination.

“When I come to church,” a woman said to me a few days ago, “I want to be inspired.” Taught, perhaps; warned, sometimes, consoled, when needed—but mostly inspired. What she confessed was the need to be lifted above ourselves, outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves by an appeal to our better natures and our nobler virtues, by connecting us with the spiritual currents of the universe, by instilling within us the possibilities of human endurance and achievement. Such also is the task of preachers.

“My heart is stirred by a noble theme…” the psalmist rightly wrote and sang, perhaps after hearing a preacher extol the greatness of God, the grandeur of love, or the glory of life.

This is the other part of effective rhetoric—a message. Not all rhetorical ability is tied to a good and just theme: think Hitler. But when a generosity of spirit, a wideness of mercy, and a genuine delight in the common good flow out of a speaker into the minds and imaginations of those who hear, transformational things can happen. It is the hope and prayer of all who preach the gospel.

Others will study this historic campaign and learn things about voting and vetting, organizing and mobilizing, friend-raising and fund-raising; these are all important. But as a preacher I am interested in the power of persuasive speech. Obama’s gifts of substance and style have brought him to the White House and have given to us a leader of inspirational power.

Other skills are needed in the White House: discernment, courage, humility, humor, etc; it remains to be seen whether he can govern. But his success as a public speaker has the potential to rejuvenate the vocation of rhetoric. Nowhere is this more needed that in the pulpits of American churches.

Neither Messiah Nor Antichrist

I welcomed my six international guests last week just hours before the last presidential debate. “You have come,” I said to them, “during the most interesting, historic election campaign in my lifetime.” I meant, of course, the contest between Hillary and Barak and then the rise of an African-American to the top of a national ticket.

What I didn’t mean was the sort of transcendent and troubling rhetoric used both to anoint and undermine Obama.

One West Coast observer wrote: “No, it’s not merely his youthful vigor, or handsomeness, or even inspiring rhetoric. It is not fresh ideas or cool charisma or the fact that a black president will be historic and revolutionary in about a thousand different ways. It is something more…a sort of powerful luminosity, a unique high-vibration integrity…Many spiritually advanced people I know identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.”

No wonder Louis Farrakkan, Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam, calls Obama the Messiah, as does Rush Limbaugh, in his customary mixture of anger, bombast, ridicule, and humor.

Both sides of this messianic chorus are bunk—both those who call him messiah and those who curse his messianic tag. Obama is a politician, running for election, eager to hold office and exercise power: just like Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and the Bush boys. Nothing more, nothing less.

Certainly not Antichrist.

Time magazine published an article in August dealing with the rumor that Obama is, not the messiah, but the antichrist. More than 800,000 web sites—such as obamaantichrist—come up when a search is made for “Obama Antichrist.” This is far less than the 2.4 million related to his messianic mission, but it is still worth noting.

For instance: “Barak Obama is the antichrist and I have the proof! The Nation of Islam prophesied the final Mohammed (a Muslim) would come into the world from the union of a white female and a black male based on the story of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Obama fulfills this. Obama hails from Chicago, who zip code is 60606—do you see the three sexes?—Obama would be a black president in the white house; Satan is described as black in attribute who seeks to take over the white mansion known as heaven. Obama’s first name is Jewish and means ‘blessed.’ Obama is Muslim.”

Is that crazy or what?

Like I was saying to my international guests: this political campaign is the most shake-your-head, throw-up-your-hands presidential season in the history of the world—that’s what I wanted to say but I knew it would not translate well.